Each year Amazon runs its annual “Break Through Novel Award” contest. Writers submit their novel by category and a panel of judges take the stories through elimination rounds until they chose an author in each genre. This years winner in the Sci-Fi/Horror category was J. Lincoln Fenn, author of the Break Through Novel – Poe. Fenn’s ( as those of us close to celebrities call her) novel will be available on October 22nd. I met up with Fenn on Good Reads and I managed to get an interview with her before fame and fortune sweeps her away.
Honestly, it would be easier not to like her, since she tromped me in the horror genre category. Unfortunately, she is really too nice to dislike and she also happens to be an excellent writer. Just read the prologue to her novel and you quickly recognize that your journey is in the hands of a talented writer. – in other words, my ego can concede that she deserved the award…darn her!
Fenn, thank your for joining us. Writers are often asked, “when or why did you start writing?” or “where do you get these ideas?” But since this is a writer’s blog we probably have a fairly good idea so I’d rather know –
WIDW: Why do you write horror?
Fenn: Stephen King said “fiction is the truth inside the lie”. I don’t think there’s a better genre than horror to explore the hardest truth of life – death.
When I was in my late twenties, my parents died. Nothing prepared me for that moment when I touched my mother’s dead body at the wake. The only way I could approach it in my writing was within the safety of a fantastic story. So while there are demons, ghosts, haunted houses, the truth inside the fiction is Dimitri coming to terms with the loss of his parents.
WIDW: We were both born and raised in New England, went to universities there, and both have since moved away – although not together LOL. Do you think there is something about that New England experience that inspires horror writing?
Fenn: It’s pretty damn creepy. Part of what makes New England perfect for horror is it’s broken parts. The Aspinwall mansion in POE is based off of the mansions built during the gilded age that fell into ruin, like the Wyndclyffe Mansion.
And every family in New England is a mystery. Most of what’s important goes unsaid. I had an Aunt who spoke really slowly, and I found out later she was on medication. She’d had a psychotic break and attacked someone with a knife. Oh, by the way, she went to the prom with the guy who’s now our priest, that’s why he looks at us funny during mass. Eat your peas.
WIDW: You majored in English, so I’m certain you were exposed to many types of writing styles, whose style most influenced your own writing?
Fenn: My writing instructors at the University of New Hampshire themselves were big influencers. I had Charles Simic for Poetry, and John Yount for Fiction. He wrote Thief of Dreams and mentored John Irving.
There are echoes of Chuck Palahniuk and Hunter S. Thompson in POE – I’m also a big fan of McSweeney’s and the dark humor reflects that. You’d have to look hard, but there’s a nod to Great Expectations in Dimitri’s arc.
WIDW: Some books make writers think, “Darn I wish I had written that.” Mine would be either Kaka’s, The Trial or Kings, The Stand. If you could turn back the clock and write one author’s novel, which would it be?
Fenn: Practically anything by Margaret Atwood, but Oryx and Crake in particular. Counting the days until Maddaddam drops. The word ‘dystopian’ gets thrown around a lot, but she’s the master. ChickieNobs Nubbins!
WIDW: Do you use any quirky techniques or rituals when you write?
Fenn: I keep playlists and that can be really helpful when you come back around to editing. When you listen to your writing playlists, it’s like a Pavlovian trigger. Also I don’t finish a paragraph or chapter before I stop writing for the day. I leave it at a place where I don’t have to think about what happens next.
WIDW: Although I’m certain women understand men better than men understand women, were there any challenges in choosing a male protagonist?
Fenn: I chose the kind of guy geek that I felt I knew and related to well, but he was a hard sell for the publishing industry. No, he doesn’t sparkle. No, he wouldn’t get a callback for an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. There’s a line of thought that the guys and gals who buy video games and enjoy Zombieland, or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World don’t read.
I disagree. Geeks are my people, and POE is my love letter to them.
WIDW: Yes some of us have jobs and actually write novels LOL. Winning the Break Out Novel award is a pretty big deal. What were your thoughts when you submitted it?
Fenn: I knew Amazon was starting up imprints like 47North, and they were scouting for genre-bending work. So honestly I was just hoping it would at least make it through the pitch round so I could incorporate it into my query letter to them.
WIDW: Your first reaction when you discovered you had won?
Fenn: Holy shit. I saw the Seattle area code on my cell, and then this woman introduced herself as Libby Johnson McKee, she introduced Thom Kephart, they were calling from Amazon, and was I sitting down?
I was at work so I closed my office door and hoped to god no one knocked, because I was floored. Completely floored. She said I had won the Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror category, and I hardly remember anything after. I think I tried to play it cool. I don’t think I was successful.
WIDW: What was the experience like in working with a publisher?
Fenn: Amazon and the 47North team have been great to work with. They flew all the finalists up to Seattle to meet the team in June, and I was introduced to their guiding metric – ‘Author Happiness.’
They’re completely serious. So serious they blew up the covers of our books, which Jeff Bezos signed personally with “Authors Rule!” They also gave me the final call on any editorial decision, from the developmental edit to the cover design. I never felt pressured to change something to make it more commercial. Commercial wasn’t even mentioned, it was all about what I wanted to say as a writer.
WIDW: Writers often believe that a publishing contract solves all their marketing needs – is that true?
Fenn: You have to be hands on either way. Let’s face it, Neil Gaiman’s 1M Twitter followers hasn’t hurt sales. But at the end of the day, it’s still about the story. Gaiman is also a great writer, and I couldn’t put down “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” once I started. One without the other doesn’t work.
WIDW: You had a lot of great reviews – but one very bitter one -which in my opinion was an unfounded “hack job.” Still when our labor of love is criticized it can hurt – how do you deal with that kind of criticism?
Fenn: I know the one you’re talking about. The truth is that some people are not going to like your work. That’s the deal. Where things get gray is when a reviewer’s motivations aren’t to simply give an opinion.
Anne Rice gave an interesting interview about how she was at first thrilled with the concept of user reviews until she started seeing some that weren’t giving their opinion about a particular work, but trying to destroy a writer’s career. One new writer, Lauren Howard, started getting bad reviews before she even published. She pulled the book when people started adding her book to lists like ‘author should be sodomized’ and ‘should be raped in prison.’
It’s a trend that needs to be watched and discussed, and I think we’ll find ways to balance freedom of speech while protecting writers from that kind of obvious flaming.
WIDW: Yes, watched and discussed and I wouldn’t take “merk-ing” off the table either.
WIDW: You choose “first person” narrative for your story voice. Why? And was there any place in the story where you believed it may have limited your writing?
Fenn: I started in first person, and Dimitri’s voice just came through so strongly that I couldn’t imagine writing it in third. In fact he came through a little too strongly. He stole each scene he was in, and I had to cut his narrative to keep the plot on track and give the other characters the chance to develop. At one point the manuscript was 465 pages. That was a lot of cutting. Dimitri still hasn’t completely forgiven me.
WIDW: Other than it being really cool, is there a reason you use only your first initial?
Fenn: I needed a pseudonym since there was another writer with my name, so I chose my great-grandfather’s name. He went with J., short for Jerry. For obvious reasons.
WIDW: Yeah but she’s British and they’re so polite couldn’t you have just asked her to change her name? Okay, maybe not. So what’s next on your radar?
Fenn: The next book, a film, peace in the Middle East. One of the above might not be true.
WIDW: You know a lot of people have been saying I look like Dimitri…I mean just in case in comes to a casting call. And speaking of inspiration, where do you find yours?
Fenn: My sources of inspiration are so varied and strange. I’m on a BBC kick – Being Human, Misfits, Orphan Black, and then I’ve been re-reading classics like Great Expectations and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. God only knows what that’ll turn into.
WIDW: So where in the world of social media can readers go to virtually stalk you?
Fenn: Here’s all my stalking info:
WIDW: And the most important question before the book summary – you live in Hawaii – do you think me and my five kids can come stay with you guys for a week – hotels there are really expensive.
Fenn: Funny, no one’s ever asked that question before LOL. Most people here complain because suddenly every relative on earth wants to come stay with them. Vacation rentals are the way to go – hotels are expensive, but the food is too, so if you can get a condo then you shop at the supermarkets or even hit the swapmeet. Like any other place, there are ways to get by for less. I will definitely sign on to give you guys a back road tour though. Scouts honor. (Oh wait, I was a Camp Fire girl…)
WIDW: I live in Florida, which is unfortunately a much cheaper flight than Hawaii, I like the way you moved it right to a vacation rental discussion…I’m saving that for my own future use.
Well thank you so much for stopping by and sharing with us. I think the book is a great story and that you have a engaging, intelligent, and entertaining writing style. I think writers often wonder about the “winners” of contests – so readers whether you read Poe because you think it will be a great story or to simply prove that you should have won – buy a copy and support Fenn in, what I am certain, is going to be an excellent career.
2013 Winner — Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award — Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror
It’s Halloween, and life is grim for twenty-three-year-old Dimitri Petrov. It’s the one-year anniversary of his parents’ deaths, he’s stuck on page one thousand of his Rasputin zombie novel, and he makes his living writing obituaries.
But things turn from bleak to terrifying when Dimitri gets a last-minute assignment to cover a séance at the reputedly haunted Aspinwall Mansion.
There, Dimitri meets Lisa, a punk-rock drummer he falls hard for. But just as he’s about to ask her out, he unwittingly unleashes malevolent forces, throwing him into a deadly mystery. When Dimitri wakes up, he is in the morgue—icy cold and haunted by a cryptic warning given by a tantalizing female spirit.
As town residents begin to turn up gruesomely murdered, Dimitri must play detective in his own story and unravel the connections among his family, the Aspinwall Mansion, the female spirit, and the secrets held in a pair of crumbling antiquarian books. If he doesn’t, it’s quite possible Lisa will be the next victim.
Paperback: 328 pages
Publisher: 47North (October 22, 2013)
Categories: IAI - Indie Author Interviews